Very Good Dogs Help Children Persevere Through Reading Struggles, Study Finds

Golden retriever Abby listens while a child reads to her sister as researcher Camille Rousseau (middle) observes. UBC

Children who read books alongside a furry friend are more likely to continue turning the pages even when faced with challenging passages, new research in the journal Anthrozoös suggests.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Brock University found that having a dog in the room while reading “positively impacted children’s reading motivation and persistence when they were faced with the task of reading a challenging passage.” The team say this could help to inform new and innovative ways to help children persevere through learning struggles.

“Our study focused on whether a child would be motivated to continue reading longer and persevere through moderately challenging passages when they are accompanied by a dog,” said study author Camille Rousseau, a doctoral student in UBC Okanagan’s School of Education, in a statement.

To determine whether dogs help children work through challenging book passages, researchers examined the reading behavior of 17 children between 6- and 8-years-old. Each student was first tested on their reading skill and assigned appropriate stories for their ability, followed by a story that was slightly beyond their reading level. The child would read aloud to a therapy dog handler both with and without the animal. After reading the first page, the student was offered the option to finish the session or continue reading. Children with a dog in the room were more likely to continue reading.

Companion animals can provide the “opportunity to foster positive developmental growth through behavior and emotional commitment” free of judgment or expectations. Tibanna79/Shutterstock

“The findings showed that children spent significantly more time reading and showed more persistence when a dog – regardless of breed or age – was in the room as opposed to when they read without them,” said Rousseau. “In addition, the children reported feeling more interested and more competent.”

The authors are quick to point out a number of study limitations. In addition to the relatively small sample size of participants, the children were only offered the “calm, welcoming environment” that trained therapy dogs provide and researchers did not control for physical interactions between the dog and child, nor did they measure child-animal attachment. Previous studies find that petting a dog can have beneficial impacts on a child. Furthermore, the children were aware of the dogs and the context of the study and may have experienced reading as more of a novelty than they would otherwise. Regardless, Rousseau said that the findings could provide a "gold-standard" canine-assisted intervention for young struggling readers as therapy dogs in reading programs continue to grow.

“There have been studies that looked at the impact of therapy dogs on enhancing students’ reading abilities, but this was the first study that carefully selected and assigned challenging reading to children,” she added.

As the study notes, companion animals can provide the “opportunity to foster positive developmental growth through behavior and emotional commitment” free of judgment or expectations.

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